Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Spartacus War of the Damned: Enemies of Rome



Blood. Brains. Dead horses. Spartacus is back.*

You can tell this season is going to be different straight away, as we open on actual Eagle-bearing Roman soldiers, who shift into turtle formation as Spartacus the one man army rides towards them. The opening fight scene between our favourite ex-gladiators and the Roman army contains more ‘traditional’ screen Roman imagery in its five minutes than the whole of the first two seasons as we see Roman soldiers cut up in all sorts of interesting ways, their Eagle used as a weapon by Spartacus so it ends the scene covered in Symbolic blood. This is still Spartacus though; Spartacus uses this symbol of Roman power to smash people’s faces in.

Spartacus’ army includes happy couples Number One and The Artist, and Crixus and Naevia, plus the blonde German woman. First nudity of the season, though, belongs to two random blood-drenched Romans, who catch us up on Spartacus’ activities over the last couple of years while being bathed by naked women. Why are they naked? Something to look at I suppose. (It’s quite likely that this random pair are ‘real’ generals who fought Spartacus, in name at least, but honestly, they’re not important enough to go and look up, they’re not going to last the episode). They’re discussing strategy with an actual toga-ed Roman, and they realise that they need more money, something ‘one among us’ can provide – huzzah! Crassus! We’re getting to the good stuff now, starting to meet actual famous Romans.

Number One and Crixus report to Spartacus while Gannicus is enjoying himself. Our guys have been on the run for a couple of years and have gathered such a huge following that they’re dragging  a small town around with them, but somehow, Crixus still hasn’t managed to find himself any clothes.

Finally, we introduced to Crassus himself, in a villa substantially fancier and less grimy-looking than any we’ve seen yet. He’s training with an ex-gladiator slave (both shirtless, of course) who accidentally injures him, which Crassus reassures him isn’t a problem, as it’s his own fault for not fighting well enough. Crassus uses two swords, because why bother fighting with sword and rectangular shield like an actual Roman soldier when you can look cool with two swords and pretend to be a gladiator? They’re watched by his slimy son Tiberius, who doesn’t see the value of learning to fight because it involves too much grunting (good thing he’s several centuries too early to watch women’s tennis). As everyone else in the scene expresses contempt of Crassus for learning from a slave, we can see that Crassus is something different because, unlike the rest, he won’t underestimate anyone for being a slave or a gladiator.

Crassus offers to send his own messengers to tell the other random two Romans that he’ll come and help them. He sends the nervous emissary off, but not before we get a mention of Pompey and his desire for titles – Crassus insists he only wants titles and honours properly earned. The mention of Pompey is interesting – I would have thought the tussle for glory after Crassus defeated Spartacus and Pompey finished off the remnants of Spartacus’ army would be too much detail after the main event is over for the series, but perhaps they are planning on referencing it. Either way, the hint of it is nice.

Back at Spartacus’ camp, Gannicus is drinking and swapping war stories with some random people, and the German blonde appears looking for wine and bringing some friends for a quick low-budget orgy. Gannicus shoos away the other two men (‘It’s my f*cking tent! protests one) and gets down to business with three attractive ladies including the German, who tells him Spartacus is still looking for him, though neither of them let that slow them down. The German is speaking English/Latin with a heavy German accent extremely reminiscent of ‘Allo ‘Allo, so I shall name her Helga.

Helga

Number One and the Artist are also having rather more romantic, monogamous sex while they discuss killing Romans. Gannicus eventually shows up, days late, to talk to Spartacus. Spartacus tries to get him to join Crixus as a leader, but Gannicus is a proper communist at heart and doesn’t wish to be set above others. He also points out that the Romans will keep coming, and wonders what Spartacus will do if he ever does lay waste to the Republic (love the correct use of Republic rather than Empire). He tries to point out that now that they have avenged their lost loves, there’s no more reason to fight. He also ‘fesses up about DSG’s wife and says it was DSG’s forgiveness that really mattered, much more than revenge, but Spartacus has no one left to offer him forgiveness, so he’s planning to end slavery and destroy Roman civilization instead. Gannicus gives him a look that says how likely that is, and heads back to the wine and the women.

We meet Crassus’ wife and younger son, and see that his wife is mildly jealous of a slave-girl who is presumably his mistress. The wife wants their son Tiberius to be given the title of tribune, which is weird, since tribunes were elected, had to be plebeian, it was a political position, not a military one, and as Crassus points out, Tiberius is far too young. Tiberius has a friend called Sabinus who promises to stay by his side, so he’s gonna die pretty soon I should think.

Spartacus goes wandering among his people to watch a training session and visit a black market dealer, because his following is now so huge and his rationing so intense that people are selling horse meat on the edge of the camp (possibly disguising it as beef burgers). The horse guy, whom I shall name Flash Harry after the black market dealer from St Trinian’s, complains about ‘King Spartacus’ and whines that he would rather be a slave again than live without a plan for how to clothe and feed everyone. He is a wee tad embarrassed when Crixus turns up yelling for Spartacus and gives away his customer’s identity, but luckily for him Spartacus is also a believer in freedom of speech, as well as the abolition of slavery and probably emancipation for all while we’re at it, because if you’re going to believe in one political ideal not held by anyone for another 1500 or more years, you might as well believe in them all.

Our heroes use Naevia as bait to ambush and kill Crassus’ messengers. Naevia’s fighting skills have come on in leaps and bounds, as she sends one guy’s head flying right off his shoulders. Seriously though, Crixus, put some clothes on. Naevia finds Crassus’ message, which luckily Spartacus can read. The message includes reference to the fact that the two randoms Crassus is supposed to be helping are holed up at a villa, so Spartacus decides to attack the villa and take off their heads while Number One provides a distraction with their main forces. Naevia is not wild about this plan, but Crixus distracts her with sex and praising her fighting ability. There are far too many happy couples (and foursomes) around, this can only end badly.

Tiberius whines because he can’t understand why his father thinks it might be a good idea to prepare to fight an ex-gladiator by training with an ex-gladiator. Tiberius insists that they are above slaves in every way so Crassus sets him against his ex-gladiator, which inevitably ends with Tiberius getting punched in the face (which is very satisfying).

One of the randoms says ‘the die has been cast’ while discussing their next move, which amuses me. They send off their soldiers to meet Number One’s distraction-army. Our heroes break into the villa, while back at Casa de Crassus, Tiberius is still whining and being comforted by a slave-girl who may or may not be the same one from earlier (probably is). Crassus is fed up of his gladiator-slave holding back, partly thanks to a chip on his shoulder about the Senate not giving him a proper command, so he decides to fight the guy to the death, promising him freedom if he wins (witnessed by Tiberius, though I wouldn’t trust that little toe-rag an inch). Their final fight is intercut with Spartacus’ attack on the villa. Crassus wins by grabbing the slave’s sword with both hands and jamming it into the guy, followed by a touching death scene in which Crassus promises him a monument, the slave says it was a honour to serve him, and Crassus says the honour was his. On Spartacus’ end, everything is a bit less honourable, as the randoms complain about him attacking like a thief or cutthroat and Spartacus beheads both of them, and watches their shortened torsos splash into a bathtub.

Crixus has grown a beard to keep himself warm, but why is he still not dressed properly?! Italy is not that hot...

Toga Guy brings the news to Crassus, and observes that his messenger went awfully close to the known location of the rebel encampment with the message telling him where the randoms were. Crassus now gets sole command and the title of imperator, and Toga Guy is not fooled for one second by Crassus’s insistence that he serves only the glory of Rome. Even whiny Tiberius isn’t completely daft and is quite impressed by the magnificent bastardy of the plan, wanting to know how Crassus knew that Spartacus would go after the randoms instead of running away from Crassus’ advancing army. Crassus replies ‘Because it is what I would have done.’

Spartacus has, in fact, decided to run away now to avoid facing hunger, cold and Crassus all at once, but he has ominously decided only a city will hold his army. His plan, therefore, is to take one from Rome, instead of sailing away to Britain or the desert or hiding in the Alps or really any other plan that would be more sensible than this one. End of episode.

One episode in, and I’m already enjoying this third season far more than any of the second. I think perhaps the decision to make this the final season was a wise one, as the plot is already moving forward even in this first episode, and we’re at last getting to the really interesting bit. Of course a big part of what interests me is Crassus – finally, we’ve got to a character who is not just a name from a brief history of battles with Spartacus, but a well-known and powerful figure for whom we have plenty of other evidence, who has a whole life story outside this one war.

I love the portrayal of Crassus here. Historically, Crassus was known for having only one vice, which was greed for money, and his wealth is clearly on display, as well as being the reason he gets the command in the first place. Crassus’ financial greed and simultaneous lack of other vices was so well known in his lifetime that he was apparently found not guilty of the capital charge of having sex with a Vestal Virgin (his cousin Licinia, who appeared in a rather different form in the show in Season 1 and probably isn’t going to make a return appearance, unless posthumously) because his claim that he was only hanging around her because he wanted to buy her villa at a knock-down price was completely convincing. This episode suggests that he’s having an affair with his slave-girl, but that wouldn’t be considered especially immoral for a Roman, and his lack of sexual deviancy is clearly demonstrated by the fact he doesn’t have a single sex scene in this episode (though he is shirtless almost the entire time). Having said all that, it’s pretty clear from his actions historically, especially his involvement in the First Triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey, that was also extremely politically ambitious, and that is clearly his motivation here.

Crassus’ respectful attitude towards slaves also fits reasonably well with his historical character. Crassus saw slaves as a valuable commodity that would bring greater profit if trained up and treated well, so it’s not a complete stretch to imagine him treating his slaves reasonably well and respecting their abilities. It also works brilliantly for the drama, as Crassus is clearly shown to be the man to bring Spartacus down, because he is the only Roman who doesn’t underestimate Spartacus and his army on the grounds that they are ex-slaves. He is also wonderfully set up as Spartacus’ equal and the sort of man Spartacus might have been if he’d been a Roman, knowing how to predict Spartacus’ moves because the two are so alike. That sets up a fantastic rivalry between the two, with Season 3 the story of how two equal forces come up against each other. It also helps that Crassus is the most likeable Roman we’ve seen so far, given that we know how the story ends.

Crassus was really the main interest of this episode, as the scenes with Spartacus and our heroes, beyond the conversation with Flash Harry, were mainly about reminding us where we are. Spartacus’ aimlessness now that his wife is dead and avenged is clear and seems to be translating itself into foolish ambition, which only Gannicus can see is going to take them on a road to nowhere. First, though, it’s time to take bets on which will be the first happy couple of meet a horrible end...

Crassus - too awesome for shirts. Or tunics.

A fantastic start to the final season. There’s only one thing still missing – next week, we get CAESAR!

*I use nicknames to refer to some of the characters in Spartacus, partly because it’s not always easy to catch their names, mostly because it amuses me. For new readers, or as a refresher, here are the main ones:
Number One = Agron, because he’s the Will Riker to Spartacus’ Captain Picard
The Artist = Nasir, short for The Artist Formerly Known as Tiberius
DSG = the late Oenomaus, stands for Drill Sergeant Guy

Quotes

Roman soldier: Who is with you?
Naevia: Death

Crassus: The house of Crassus bows to no one

All Spartacus reviews

6 comments:

  1. It's probably not what they meant, but there were military tribunes. The rank was somewhere between a centurion and the legate. Since Crassus is the general, he could probably appoint his son tribunus laticlavius, making him his right-hand man. If they meant the political position, the only thing keeping him from getting elected would be his age, since daddy undoubtedly has enough money to buy the election and the Licinii were plebeians. OTOH, this is the period where Sulla had pretty much locked the cursus honorum into a very fixed progression. If the boy hasn't been an aedile yet, he's not going anywhere.

    But who is this Tiberius Crassus supposed to be? The famous Crassus had two sons, Marcus and Publius. There don't seem to have been any Tiberii among the Licinii, let alone the Crassi.

    It will be interesting to see what they do with Caesar. They pretty much have a free hand, since there is no record of Caesar having been involved in the Servile War. Actually, he was probably kicking around militarily in the east. He seems to have been a military tribune around this time and an early introduction to Crassus could explain a few things.

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    1. I'm assuming Tiberius Crassus will get killed off. It's not impossible that he could have had a son who died young we don't know about, though probably pretty unlikely!

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  2. Speaking from the US and having already seen the first three episodes, the depiction of Caesar is a big fail, at least so far.

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  3. Juliette! I am so pleased this series is back, mostly because we get another regular dose taste of your wonderful sense of humour again. I too am looking forward to the Point Break inspired Caesar!

    I enjoyed this episode, and for most part the actor portraying Crassus has set up that he is a formidable fellow in his own right - and not just someone obsessed with wealth, which would have been an uninteresting direction to take the character from a dramatic point of view.

    Cheers
    H

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    Replies
    1. Me too, and I like the characteristion of Crassus a lot. It fits the sources without making him the one-dimensional Gordon Gekko that he can come across as (though I can't imagine this Crassus burning down buildings so he could buy the plot next door cheap!)

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